Friday, February 28, 2014

we have liftoff – Big Year Out is go for 2014

We’re delighted to announce that Big Year Out, our new discipleship programme for young adults, is a go for 2014. As of today, we have the necessary students we needed to make it a viable learning community.

This means that from next week, Dan Anear will be with us at Uniting College two days a week and we will have a bunch of young adults making themselves at home around the Campus during Semesters.

In response to feedback during promotion, we will be making a few tweaks to the 2014 Big Year Out programme. This will include moving from the day to the evening in order to offer a Young adult taster space. We see this as a chance to connect with the young adults who said “I’d love to do it, but I can only do an evening.” It means that any young adults who want a weekly evening space to chat and talk God, mission, life, ministry, are welcome.

We are also going to ramp up the mission-in-local-context component, encouraging participants to find a ministry opportunity and use that as credit toward the Certificate.

There is a strong sense of this being a God thing. On Wednesday we did not have enough enrolments and so made the difficult decision, that despite a heap of advertising and praying, we could not go ahead.

As we left that meeting, a just completed enrolment form was handed to us. On Thursday two more enrolment forms arrived, giving us the group size we felt we needed to ensure a worthwhile learning experience. (And it’s not too late to enrol, either in the full programme or in the evening Young Adult space).

There is a sense that we stopped. And into that space came the surprise of God. Which is a great space for us as a College to be in 🙂

Posted by steve at 05:37 PM

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Did you just hear that loud ‘pop’?

It was the sound of champagne opening to celebrate that the Adelaide College of Divinity, of which Uniting College is a member, has been assessed as providing higher education to the same high quality standards as other universities and higher education providers across Australia, at all course levels.

This means that as a registered Higher Education Provider, ACD undergraduate courses, including those taught by Uniting College, have been accredited, for a further seven years, with no conditions.

In the words of ACD Executive Officer, Janet Buchan, “Now we can happily get on with the ‘business’ of education– putting students front and centre of everything we do”.

Note: This news is a followup to news in December that our post-graduate course offerings had also been granted seven years accreditation. One concrete result since then has been 18 new postgraduate student enrolments, from 8 different denominations and 3 different countries.

Posted by steve at 05:58 PM

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Henry Lawson Fringe act as biographical theology

James McClendon wrote the fabulous Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology. He took four lives – Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr, Clarence Jordan, and Charles Ives – and used them to consider church doctrine: how theology is illuminated and improvised throughout their lives.

On Saturday, I went to the Adelaide Fringe Festival show – Henry Lawson goes to Princeton – and saw a modern day version of McClendon’s biographical theology.

Ian Coats, one of our adjunct Faculty, completed his PhD at Princeton. He’s also a musician. He’s taken Henry Lawson, Australian storyteller and poet and put his work to music. Supported by a hard working band – violin, drums, double bass, mandolin – over an evening, it was a wonderfully rich musical event.

But alongside the music was the narrative. The songs were carefully arranged by Ian to tell the story of Lawson’s life. It was at this point that the biographical theology emerged, as Lawson’s life was plumbed for wisdom. While Lawson ended his life an alcoholic, other possible pathways were explored – mysticism, friendship, nostalgia, political engagement.

This gave hope. It was authentic, vulnerable and rich.

It also offered choices – how then will we live? And at this point, it became a superb example of biographical theology, of exploring a live listening for wisdom for living. Not through books, but through song.

Well done Ian Coats. Check it out – there are still two more shows, Sunday March 2 and Saturday March 8.

Posted by steve at 09:13 AM

Sunday, February 23, 2014

a Catholic take on mission today

I spent Saturday among folk from the Catholic ArchDiocese of Adelaide, speaking for about 90 minutes at the Orientation day for Ministry Formation Programme. It is the 3rd time I’ve spoken to Catholic groups, in this case lay leaders for church ministry, since I’ve been in Adelaide. It was not something I expected when I arrived, but a real privilege.

I was asked to offer something in relation to mission and ministry today. After some internal to-ing and fro-ing, I decided to repeat my Getting on the Mission presentation which I did a number of times at Refresh, around South Australia in 2012, plus in Melbourne with Manningham Uniting.

Being a mate – This expression of mission is best seen in the story of the woman at the well (John 4). An encounter with Jesus turns the Samaritan into a storyteller. What is striking is how she, not Jesus, is the primary agent in mission. Even though only minutes old in faith, she is willing to verbally share her moment of encounter with her neighbours who know her so well.

Having a yarn – This expression of mission is threaded throughout the book of Acts, thirty six times in which faith is presented verbally to a group of listeners. What is striking is how different each speech is – in setting, in illustrations, in ending, in effectiveness. There is never a “one-size-fits-all” repeated stock sermon or generic alter call. Instead there is a deep sensitivity to a listening audience and the unique cultures that shape their hearing.

Crossing the ditch – In Acts 8, mission occurs as the gospel jumps continents and the church in Africa is birthed. Ditches are being crossed. They can be cultural. They can also be generational. What is important is who takes the initiative in Acts 8. The primary agents are not the one on mission (Philip), but the Spirit and the Ethiopian. By implication, the first act of mission is thus an act of listening, of finding out where, and how the ditch is being crossed.

Sharing the load – In John 10:11, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life. Mission emerges in the context of “knowing a voice”, of relationships of depth and honesty. Mission takes shape not in words, but in sacrificial actions. When linked with Luke 15:3-7, we are reminded that mission expects shepherds to be wandering far from the walls of the church.

In summary, in the Biblical narrative, mission in the Bible has little to do with imposition, corporate programmes or manipulation. Instead it emerges in relationships, through listening and the sharing of life.

What was intriguing for me was first, their responses to the “detox” question and second the engagement around fresh expressions (part of Crossing the ditch).

The “detox” question comes at the beginning, when I ask people to name the words that come to mind when they hear the word mission. Normally these are overwhelmingly negative. This group were no exception. Intriguing was how similar the conversation was to Protestant groups – linked with Stolen Generations, Billy Graham Crusades, lay-clergy divides, overseas, fire and brimstone.

It both saddens and intrigues me how raw and unprocessed is church responses to mission, when the discipline of missiology has so much to offer. Part of me thinks its a natural consequence of Colleges not employing missiologists. It means that our Biblical and theological thinking within our communities is being refreshed, but we remain stuck with antiquated attitudes toward mission.

Second, in preparation, reading contemporary Catholic debate around mission, revealed some interesting conversation around the theme of new evangelization. Here is Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Louisville, speaking at Conference on new evangelization, Mexico 2013

We need a new order, new expression and new methods.

Posted by steve at 01:31 PM

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

theology, leadership and Satan

Beyond education: exploring a theology of the church’s formation is a colloquim I’m speaking at next month in Melbourne. The conference seeks to move beyond either/or statements – that ‘theology’ is for ‘academics’. I’ve been asked to give some input titled “Theological education in leadership formation”.

This paper will interrogate the tagline of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology – learn! lead! live! – using the work of cultural theorist Mieke Bal in order to pay particular attention to the place of formation in a pluralistic world. It will explore the ethical implications inherent in notions of “founding texts” and “moments of meaning.” Some implications, for ministry practice (learn!), for ministry agents (lead!), for communities of faith (live!), will be outlined. The aim is a theology of ecclesial formation that might shift the conversation beyond modern dualities of head and heart, theory and practise, religious and secular, individual and communal.

In doing some preparation I came across the following comment, on a well known theology blog:

That still leaves the Satan: I can’t quite decide where he would best fit — probably as an expert in Leadership.

It’s a fairly strong statement, which seems to view leadership with quite some disdain. Which has got me pondering, as I prepare my presentation – why does leadership cause such negative responses in some circles of theological education? What are the concerns about leadership that might be held by an audience of theologians?

Posted by steve at 09:21 PM

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The book thief: an exercise in imaginative futility

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for February, of The Book Thief.

The Book Thief
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

I stole away from work to watch The Book Thief. With temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, I found myself stepping into a somewhat chilling cinematic meditation on imagination in dark times.

The words of death (the voice of Roger Allam) begin and end The Book Thief. A constant presence, they serve as a chilling reminder of life in Germany during World War 2. Leisel (Sophie Nelisse) is a child growing up through Germany’s descent into its darkness. Adopted by a family living in a small German town, she witnesses the smashing of Jewish shop fronts,the impact of conscription on German neighbours and the helpless fear palpable in night time bomb shelters.

The Book Thief is based on a novel of the same name by Markus Zusak. I live in a house of admirers. Unable to thieve their precious copy, leaves me unable to provide any sustained comparison between original text and cinematic portrayal.

While the acting is solid, the faux-German accents present a stumbing block. Geoffrey Rush plays Hans, a playful father, a strong moral centre in Liesel’s growing world. Emily Watson plays Rosa, a mother sternly covering her fear. Nico Liersch plays Rudy, a loyal childhood friend.

A central metaphor holding together The Book Thief is that of words. Words inhabit the books that fascinate Liesel and cover the walls of the cellar in which her imagination is nurtured. It is words that are painted out of an old book, Hitler’s Mein Kampf and given as a gift to Liesel, inviting her to be a writer, as well as a reader, of fine words.

All of which sets up an interesting philosophical dilemma. What is the place of words – poetic, imaginative – in war? Are they actually a way to avoid reality, a book something to clutch while Jews sadly shuffle through your town? Or are they a pattern of resistance, a way to cultivate a world more beautiful, a humanity more noble, no matter how meanly pragmatic and helpless your times?

Intriguingly similar questions are often pointed at church. Are they, like the cellar in The Book Thief, a retreat place in order to listen to words as other worldly as the ghost stories Liesel creates in the night shelter as Allied bombs fall?

The role of the church is limited in The Book Thief. By way of introduction, we see an anonymous minister burying Liesel’s brother. Interestingly, he too is speaking words from a book. Later in the movie, a panoramic shot of the German town in which Liesel is lived includes a spire, dominant and centre.

It raises the inevitable question regarding the words uttered by the church as Nazi Germany rose to power. What happened to sentences like “Blessed are the peace makers” or phrases such as “Love your enemies”? Perhaps it is that at some times, in some place, words, no matter how powerful, simply fail.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 07:44 AM

Thursday, February 13, 2014

strong words, but team words

Today at our team meeting, I read from the weeks lectionary reading – 1 Corinthians 3:1-6. It is very strong in the Message. So strong that I felt I needed to begin by reminding the team these were Paul’s words, not my words 🙂

But for right now, friends, I’m completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You’re acting like infants in relation to Christ, capable of nothing much more than nursing at the breast. Well, then, I’ll nurse you since you don’t seem capable of anything more. As long as you grab for what makes you feel good or makes you look important, are you really much different than a babe at the breast, content only when everything’s going your way? When one of you says, “I’m on Paul’s side,” and another says, “I’m for Apollos,” aren’t you being totally infantile?

Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us—servants who waited on you as you gradually learned to entrust your lives to our mutual Master. We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving. You happen to be God’s field in which we are working.

I then invited us to name each other truly. None of us are Paul. None of us are Apollos. We are each unique. And so our task was, in small groups, to remind each other of our unique value to the team. And then to pray for each other, for the field in which we are working.

We’re two weeks away from the start of Semester. We’ve got our best enrolment figures in years. We’re launching a whole range of new topics – Bible and culture, pioneering, global mission, chaplaincy. We’re in the midst of a major resourcing of our online capacities, exploring blended learning – topics in which student learning includes online delivery of content and instruction – building connections and enhancing community student to student and teacher to student. We’ve got new postgraduate courses with very strong enrolments. We’ve seen a 60% change in the make up of our team in the last 18 months.

We can only do this as servants, differently gifted, gradually learning to entrust our lives to our mutual Master. Strong words, yet perhaps for us team words.

Posted by steve at 08:48 PM

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

40 as Lent resource

Last night I was asked, along with about 10 others, to present some creative ideas that might help church leaders in South Australia preparing for Lent and Easter. It was a resourcing event put on by the Centre for Music, Liturgy, the Arts and a great way, I thought, of resourcing the church.

Each of us presenting had about 5 minutes to offer something creative. I offered two steps in the creative process. The first piece of creativity was not mine, but is the wonderful meditation prepared by cartoonist Si Smith. It is available for download from Proost.

The second piece of creativity was how I had helped my community more deeply engage the first piece of creativity. I offered the following resources.

Some spoken word, some phrases I spoke over the 40 piece. This was a call to worship, a mix of Scripture and spirituality suggestions, that might help people focus on the images. Not everyone has a visual literacy and not everyone turns that visual literacy on in church. So I hoped (in discussion with Si Smith) that some words might open people up to the visuals. The full script is here. It got some excellent feedback, so I offer it here:

Thanks for this Steve, it was a very powerful call to worship. At our Sunday morning service it provoked someone (else) to give a ten minute meditation on what you said. The quote you give about pace and the scale of the project was an excellent preparation.

Or this one

Really liked the interactive / responsive use of the art. I spent most of today adapting it for my community, daily emails and all.

Then a takeaway postcard – ( postcard here). Some of the spoken phrases were spiritual practices, shaped by the excellent Peter Graystone’s Detox Your Spiritual Life in 40 Days So as well as hearing them spoken, folk could take them away as a resource for the Lent period, things to do, a way of using all our bodies, not just singing, in worship.

Worship curation is for me not about the performance, but able the processes by which people can connect, engage and interact – both in the gathering and into the week beyond.

Posted by steve at 06:08 PM

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

a spirituality for a pilgrim people

I’m teaching Church, Ministry, Sacraments over these 2 weeks. This morning the lectionary Psalm was Psalm 84. It got me thinking ….

You are a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal (Basis of Union, rifting off Hebrews 11). “Who go through the barren valley find there a spring” (Psalm 84:5)

It comes to you. A pool of water on a heated day.

You can’t make it, nor create it.

You can try to hurry to it. But that leaves you exhausted, the proverbial hare, gasping, while the tortoise plods on by.

Best simply to wait for it. And when you see it, spread invitingly around the next corner, simply receive it.

If deep, jump in. Splash. Laugh. Dunk a fellow swimmer. Get out shaking your head like a playful dog. Then lay your clothes on a sunny rock. Lie back. Enjoy the birdsong. Reflect on steps taken, share a story with a travelling companion, compare blisters, prepare for the next part.

If shallow, drink deep. Splash iced cold water over your face. Wet your hair and let it trickle down your neck. Laugh. Splash a fellow drinker. Then lie back. Enjoy the birdsong. Reflect on steps taken, share a story with a travelling companion, compare blisters, prepare for the next part

Some find these pools of water on a heated day on a night with friends over red wine. Others find it on a weekend bush walk. Yet another find it as one wanders through an art gallery or turns the page on an ancient theology book. Wherever you find it, you leave the richer, nod the wiser, knowing more deeply that on the way Christ feeds.

With Word and Sacraments

The trouble is, whether deep or shallow, poorly done or richly resonant, you know you can’t stay. A pool on a heated day is only a pausing place for a pilgrim people.

It’s dangerous. No stupid – to remain in the barren valley. It’s not the point, nor the purpose.

For you are a pilgrim people

Posted by steve at 08:56 AM

Friday, February 07, 2014

writing in grief

I lost my Dad suddenly last August. Which has launched me on another, major, grief journey.

One of the impacts has been on my writing. Essentially, since Dad died, I’ve struggled to write. I have a complex job and that absorbs a lot of mental energy. It involves some deep work with people and that’s been intense and absorbing. Before Dad died, there was some drive to keep using what little mental space I had left for writing, some energy to get up early and steal a few hours in a cafe. But since Dad died, either work has got bigger, or people more intense. Or I’ve lost something.

I’m also aware that one way to deal with grief is to compartmentalise and remain in one’s head, rather than experience emotions. This has made me nervous (become a convenient excuse?) about getting back into writing, especially given some of the more academic type writing projects I was invested in.

I’ve done a few things (monthly film reviews and study leave). But that ability to grab a few hours here and there, at the start or end of a day, which can keep writing projects quietly ticking along – that has gone.

In late October, I became aware of a writing project (working title Farewelling Our Fathers). It was an attempt to connect mens’ studies with mens’ experiences. It is seeking to collect eulogies from about 30 different men – around 2,000 words each reflecting on farewelling their dads – with recent literature on how men of my generation (40 and up) were taught to relate to our fathers, and our fathers to us.

In other words, a pastoral theology, reflecting on masculinity and death. It sounded intriguing, a potentially rich mix of head, heart and culture. I wondered if it might help me process my grief, might let me attend to head and heart, might draw words from me, might ease me back into writing.

It’s been really, really difficult. Going back into the emotions, trying to find the words. It’s like stepping into uncertain terrain, not sure what emotions will emerge, needing to be in a space that allows those emotions to emerge in ways that don’t effect my work and colleagues.

Over the weekend, my daughter needed to be in town for a 2 and a half hour event. It opened up a space, one that was helpfully defined by time, one that was personal. I found a cafe and found the reserves to do a complete edit.

Off to the editor!

I’m sure it will come back for further work, but it was a milestone, the first major writing project since Dad died. I’m not sure it will make future writing any easier. But I’m glad the first major thing I’ve written since Dad died has been so costly, has been about him and has been creative, heartfelt, spiritual and a seeking for integration.

And I still miss my Dad. Daily.

Posted by steve at 09:25 AM

Thursday, February 06, 2014

from Waitangi to Walking on Country

Today is Waitangi Day in my homeland. On this day in 1840, a Treaty was signed between Maori people of New Zealand and the Queen. While it is a times a contested document, it stills stands as a seminal moment in the history of New Zealand and in how two people’s might relate to each other. Over the years of my time of ministry in New Zealand, it provided a rich ground for reflection – in sermons, in prayer, in communion.

Today, here at Uniting College, in Adelaide, Australia, is the start of Walking on Country. It might be coincidence, but I don’t think we’d be Walking on Country without Waitangi Day, without the energy that Rosemary Dewerse and myself, both New Zealanders, both Missiologists, both shaped by being Kiwi, being Christian, both now here at Uniting College, have poured into this.

Today a group of about 20 people headed off to the Flinders Ranges, to the land of the Adnyamathanha people. They will be led by local indigenous leaders, to be in their world, to hear their stories. It is the 2nd year we as a College have run this. (See here and here and here).

It was a few days that had more impact on our life as a College in 2013 than any other few days that year. New insights, new relationships (including Pilgrim Uniting), new sensitivity. Thanks Waitangi Day, for pushing us toward Walking on Country.

Posted by steve at 11:08 AM

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Seven Disciplines of Evangelisation

There is a lovely paper by Bishop Steve Croft on the Seven Disciplines of Evangelisation. It emerges ecumenically, from his participation as the Anglican Fraternal Delegate to the Synod of Bishops in Rome: a three week gathering of Roman Catholic Cardinals and Bishops with Pope Benedict to explore the single theme of the new evangelization.

(Three weeks on evangelization! I’ve never heard of a Protestant denomination gathering their key leaders for 3 whole weeks on mission topics)

The paper suggests seven disciplines
1. The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation)
2. The discipline of apologetics (defending and commending the faith)
3. The discipline of evangelism (initial proclamation)
4. The discipline of catechesis (learning and teaching the faith)
5. The discipline of ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church)
6. The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church)
7. The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)

It’s a helpful framework for me to now look at our curriculum as a College, seeing if we’re helping folk engage with this breadth.

And it makes me glad that we as a College are involved in A Clear Call conference, followed by an Evangelism, Conversion and the Mission of God intensive. I’ve looked at the course outline and I’m excited that the focus on the discipline of evangelism will be an entry point into all seven of these disciplines.

Posted by steve at 08:15 AM

Monday, February 03, 2014

body benedictions

At the National Fresh expressions and mission-shaped ministry 2014 conference, I was asked to contribute not just some explanation of history, but also be part of leading in a final act. I’ve been aware more and more recently of the importance of our bodies (and the way they are so rarely used in worship). So here’s what I did.

In your right hand, gather your dreams, what is arising in hope from within you. Take some time to hold these dreams before God.

Now, since we are the body of Christ, I invite you to connect your right hand, the dreams you are holding, with the hand of another. Now take some time to pray, silently, for the dream you are touching.

In your left hand, gather your to-do list, all the things that might lie neglected as a result of these last few days. Take some time to hold your to do list before God.

Now, since we are the body of Christ, I invite you to connect your left hand, the to do list you are holding, with the hand of another. Now take some time to pray, silently, for the to do list you are touching.

Now put your hands in your pockets. You are taking your dreams and your to do list with you. I invite you to turn and face the door.

Now hear the benediction, some words from the lectionary text for this Sunday … (and so I offered them some words from Luke 2:29-32; servants be dismissed in peace, go to see salvation, go to be a light for Gentiles, for the glory of God)

A good deal of positive feedback after, as people collected their stuff and began to take their bodies into God’s world.

Posted by steve at 08:05 AM